Is Your Organization Calm or Chaotic? A new metric has the answer
Why It’s OK to be Paranoid About Performance!
Many managers are expressing concern about ‘Quite Quitting'. They fear that Remote Working is impacting on productivity, as well as engagement. But, how to optimize post-pandemic ways of working? More specifically, how to optimize remote and hybrid working to deliver gains in performance, productivity & efficiency?
You probably won't be surprised to know that there is no clear agreement on how to optimize ways of working either for remote or office-based executives. Two divergent approaches emerge. Here we reveal what your organization's approach says a about its leadership and culture.
Productivity Tops the Agenda
Trends such as ‘the great resignation' and ‘quiet quitting‘ have made managers suspicious. They are skeptical if they are really getting 100% from their staff.
Productivity now tops the agenda for many organizations. Fueled by increasing concerns about the economy, many big name organizations (e.g. Google and Facebook) have launched drives to boost productivity and performance. Yet, there is a surprising lack of agreement on how to make it happen.
Some are adopting the traditional approach (e.g. productivity tracking), with others adopting a more contemporary ‘ways of working' approach.
Two Contrasting Approaches
There are two approaches to optimizing ways of working and driving performance or productivity.
The first is the ‘old school' or traditional approach where
- Management issues edits and commands, introducing new targets or controls, backed up by some form of traditional reward or threat of sanction. Some new tools or training may be provided.
- In the background there is a subtle (or not so subtle) ‘shape up or ship out‘ message and a fear of a headcount reduction.
- As we will explore, the adoption of this traditional approach has led to a rise in productivity tracking -using software to track what workers are doing.
- Some have even gone as far as suggesting that every employee should have a publicly-available job performance file1
The second, more contemporary approach:
- Is based on engaging and empowering teams to optimize and refine ‘the Way We Work' (i.e. the team).
- Recognizes the team as the primary vehicle through work gets done based on engagement and reflects a more sophisticated view of human performance motivation.
- The aim is to realize benefits for not just the organization, but for those doing the work too.
The traditional approach is contrasted with the more contemporary approach in the table below:
|Top Down control
|Bottom up engagement
|Traditional carrot & stick approach
|Leverages power of intrinsic motivation
|Organization wide transformation
|Compliance is required
|Commitment is key
|Vague or aspirational Goals
|Practical, Actionable Agenda
‘Performance Tracking Takes-off
‘Trust but verify' were the words famously spoken by Ronald Regan in respect of monitoring the implementation of nuclear arms reduction treaties. Many organizations seem to be adopting a similar approach to remote working, with 8 out of 10 of the largest US private sector employers tracking white-collar worker productivity metrics.2
Data suggests that productivity tracking software sales jumped 65% from 2019 to 20223.
Moreover, it may come as a surprise to many leaders that organizations don't need special software to track productivity—this ‘spyware' functionality is available too via common workplace tools such as Microsoft Office, Zoom, Slack and so on4.
For some this is a leap in terms of productivity and efficiency. For others, it is an Orwellian ‘big brother is watching you' moment with the potential to take leadership back one hundred years when the height of management sophistication was a stopwatch and clipboard.
Performance Tracking Challenges
Being productive and being busy are too very different things. Looking busy is something else entirely. For those who are being tracked, ‘mouse giggling' (an extension to your browser or a device jiggles your mouse to suggest that you are active/productive) has become a new routine.
The latest buzzword is ‘performance theatre‘ – the idea of making yourself look busier than you really are. Some suggest that this ‘theatre' could be taking more than an hour per day5. But why do people feel like they need to do this? It is a clear sign that if you reward A (busyness), you cannot expect B (productivity).
If the problem was that people were not spending enough time in Teams, checking email or responding to IM, then tracking that activity would make sense. But, who says that this is correlated with performance, much less with productivity or engagement?
The answer is not for people to spend longer on teams, IM and so on. In many cases, it is to spend less. In any respect, electronic engagement could actually be one of the lowest forms of engagement that there is – just watch how many people have their camera off at the next Teams meeting.
While ‘productivity theatre' steals the headlines explore the research further and you will find that ‘73% of workers get and reply to messages and notifications outside their working hours'6.
Knowledge Worker Productivity
But how do you measure the productivity or performance for a knowledge worker? The danger is that the definition of productivity is steeped in the old factory notions. The problem is that we are not producing widgets anymore.
Productivity for knowledge workers includes creative problem-solving, effective teamwork and collaboration, innovation, informed decision-making and so on.
Tracking how active people are based on their interaction with various applications and systems may be an obvious temptation for managers. But how well does this correlate with levels of engagement and productivity for today's knowledge workers?
Moreover, how much will ‘Big Brother is watching you‘ really boost levels of motivation and engagement? Isn't there a better solution than productivity tracking?
Revealing the Leader's Mindset
A person's attitudes to quiet quitting productivity tracking and performance theater can reveal a lot about them as a leader. That is their style of leadership, how they engage their people, their views on motivation, and so on. Equally, it reveals much about the culture of the organization.
It could be argued that in turning to productivity tracking software, some organizations are fighting last year's (or to be more precise, last century's) battle when it comes to performance. They are clinging to an outmoded view of human performance, motivation and potential. They lack a basic understanding of what makes people tick.
As one of our consulting colleagues puts it: ‘Traditional attitudes to Performance Tracking and Performance Theatre suggests that too many managers have slept through the lecture on Mc Gregor's Theory X and Y, Maslow's Hierarchy or even Herzberg. They haven't read Brene Brown, Carol Dweck, Shawn Anchor, Margaret Heffernan, Amy Edmondson or Dan Ariely. They haven't heard of intrinsic motivation, Performance 2.0, Growth Mindset, Big P, Psychological Safety, or so many other ideas that have re-shaped the way we think about performance'.
For some managers productivity tracking could be seen as a fear-based response to a legitimate concern. It might also fall into the category of a ‘paranoid process‘- the way that bureaucratic organizations seek to manage business uncertainty in low trust environments7.
‘Can I discipline people who I suspect of ‘quiet quitting'?' asked the manager on Twitter. Clearly 280 characters are not enough to answer this question thoroughly, although ‘as the leader you are, first and foremost, responsible for the level of engagement, productivity and performance of your people'. After all, it was you who hired them, you trained them, you motivated them, you supported them and so on. Wasn't it? Well, then maybe the problem is you and not them. How you deal with the situation now will reveal (not just to the person in question, but to all of your team) just how capable of being a leader you are. Specifically, your ability to engage, energize and support. As one HBR article puts it: “Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees”8
Productivity Tracking – There's An Easier Way!
Our data shows that the potential for a team (or a group of individuals working together) to optimize ‘the Way WE Work‘ is much more powerful than any piece of performance tracking software.
If a team is empowered to optimize ‘the way we work' by even 3% or 5% the impact on productivity and performance is both real, significant and ongoing. Indeed, as one of our consulting team, raised on comic books, says, ‘if teams had a superpower, then this is what it would be!'.
Why settle for tracking somebody's productivity? Asks one of our project coaching partners. ‘Surely, what you want to do is boost it!! The problem is that productivity tracking something you do to somebody, optimizing ways of working is something you do with somebody, indeed with a team. However, while one just gives you data, the other gives you results.'
The Role of the Leader
For enlightened leaders, using tools and methods from the last century to optimize the modern work environment won’t cut it. Today's knowledge worker is very different from the cowed factory worker of the 1900s. He or she does not switch their brain off when they go to work, indeed that is exactly what you don’t want to happen!
Why all the drama about productivity at this time? We have long known that most people are operating at just 63% of their full performance potential (See Ray Collis & John O Gorman, Pitstop to Perform, ASG Group Press, 2018)). This is a much deeper issue than productivity or performance. That organizations are systematically failing to unleash their people's full potential is one of the greatest opportunities, as well as challenges facing today's leaders.
Besides, the most powerful tool in boosting performance is not productivity tracking software, but rather effective leadership. If performance theater is underway, then it is not just the actors, but the theater owners, managers and sponsors that are to blame.
Other factors that make performance tracking and performance theater redundant include a high trust environment, appreciation and recognition, the potential for personal growth, being part of a team, a level of autonomy and a shared sense of purpose.
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Updated from an original post from Oct. 16 2022.
SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:
- ‘Tech CEOs Want Every Worker to Have a Permanent, Publicly-Available Job Performance File' by Aaron Gordon on Vice.com, Link: https://www.vice.com/en/article/n7zj9z/tech-ceos-want-every-worker-to-have-a-permanent-publicly-available-job-performance-file
- This is one of the findings of a recent New York Times investigation into the rise of digital productivity monitoring that reports: “Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, ‘idle' buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records. Pauses can lead to penalties, from lost pay to lost jobs.” ‘The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score' By Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, Aug. 14, 2022 Link: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/08/14/business/worker-productivity-tracking.html
- That is according to internet security and digital rights firm Top10VPN as quoted by The Washington Post's Danielle Abril in an article titled ‘Your boss can monitor your activities without special software', October 7, 2022 Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/10/07/work-app-surveillance/
- See: ‘Your boss can monitor your activities without special software', by Danielle Abril in The Washington Post, October 7, 2022 Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/10/07/work-app-surveillance/
- see ‘Killing Time Report 2022' by Qatalog and Github, Link: https://language.work/research/killing-time-at-work/
- see: Killing Time
at Work a study by Qatalog and Gitlab, Mid 2022. Link: https://language.work/research/killing-time-at-work/.
- See: Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, ‘The Hedgehog Effect: The Secrets of Building High-Performance Teams', Jossey-Bass, 2011
- Jack Zenger & Joseph Folkman, ‘Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees', HBR, August 31, 2022.